A first-time battery of right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and catcher Adley Rutschman, the Orioles’ past two first-round draft picks in the organization and two of their highest-rated prospects, joined up for Low-A Delmarva on Saturday with expectations as difficult to match as they are lofty.
In an organization where the future is being sold far harder than the present, the union of this year’s top overall pick in Rutschman and the organization’s best-performing young pitcher in Rodriguez is about far more than what they did together in a 5-1 loss Saturday at Municipal Stadium.
“The simple answer is, it’s cool,” Delmarva pitching coach Justin Ramsey said. “You’re looking at, potentially, the future of the organization for potentially a decade of what this could be together.”
That’s the hope, and one Orioles fans and the franchise itself have embraced with both arms. Another season that’s careening toward 110-plus losses means the Orioles are looking down the line at their top prospects as the core of the next winner executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias hopes to build in Baltimore.
The fact that Rutschman went hitless and Rodriguez allowed four runs without getting out of the fifth inning won’t dampen that, even if they know there’s no trading on that promise forever.
“People want to see results, and today it wasn’t all that great,” Rodriguez said. “Definitely didn’t go the way we wanted it to. But we still got out of some pretty tight jams. As far as us being together, we worked pretty well today.”
“Overall, I think we’re all really pleased with both of those guys" Delmarva manager Kyle Moore said. "It’s really nice to finally see it in person because you kind of thought about it ever since Adley got drafted. ‘I wonder what that would look like with Grayson on the mound and Adley behind the plate?’ That may be something we see a lot of.”
Rutschman, 21, was the consensus top pick this year out of Oregon State, and is a player who has looked the part of a star so far in the minors. Even as he gets his strength back after a bout with mononucleosis following his college season, his average exit velocity is 94 mph, suggesting when he gets pitches to hit, he’s not missing them.
Rodriguez, by comparison, hasn’t been giving hitters much of anything to barrel up this year. The 19-year-old has 122 strikeouts in 88 innings after Saturday’s outing, with a 1.05 WHIP. His fastball has climbed to the upper 90s as the season has gone on, and he’s developed a devastating changeup to go with his two breaking balls.
Rutschman, who was promoted to Delmarva earlier this week after exploding for five hits Monday at Short-A Aberdeen, said upon his promotion Thursday that the best way to improve as a catcher is to catch new pitchers. He caught five in a 1-0 shutout in his debut Wednesday, and said the process of catching someone new like Rodriguez is the same as any other pitcher.
“For the most part, it’s trying to get a feel for what he likes to throw, in what counts, and how we’re going to try and attack batters,” Rutschman said.
Said Rodriguez: “We just kind of said what we like to do. I told him how I like to pitch, which is usually relatively quick, fast-paced. He said, ‘Let’s roll.’ ”
They did that early Saturday with fastballs. A well-rested Rodriguez, who pitched three innings Aug. 16 as the Orioles try to stretch out his innings allowance to let him pitch in the playoffs next month, pumped 96 mph fastballs past two of the first three hitters for strikeouts.
He ran into trouble in the second inning, allowing a home run on the first pitch of the frame — another fastball over the plate — and found some barrels with two strikes as the inning progressed. He was going to his low-80s slider a lot, but having more success with his changeup, which was 79-81 mph with late fade.
“They kind of played pepper up there at the plate,” Rodriguez said. “Early in the game, I wasn’t making as good pitches as I was late. They were fouling balls off, kept making me throw pitches, and they were just trying to put the ball in play.”
Rodriguez found his groove as he and Rutschman started going to the changeup more often, especially in a scoreless third inning.
It wasn’t all perfect. Catcher Tyler Cropley popped up the first pitch of the fourth inning down the first base line toward the Hagerstown Suns dugout, but Rutschman had it clunk off his glove. It turned into a 10-pitch at-bat that Rodriguez won with a breaking ball for a swinging third strike, and what would have been a quick inning was extended.
Rodriguez left with two runners on in the fifth inning, and both scored after he gave way to Juan Echevarria. He was charged with four runs on six hits with a pair of walks and five strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. The home run allowed was just his fourth in 88 innings this season.
If it wasn’t the best showing for either — Rutschman went 0-for-3 with a strikeout looking — the beauty is it’s just the beginning.
Rutschman only knew Rodriguez as a high pick who was having a good season when the Orioles selected him this summer. But he hopes the next few weeks with the Shorebirds will let him get to know the preceding top pick on a person level.
“That’s really what I’m looking forward to doing here as I progress here in Delmarva, getting to know who he is as a person and how I can help him out as a pitcher,” Rutschman said.
The pitcher he got to know will be one who has already had a fabulous season for Delmarva. Rodriguez, the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft, pitched in the All-Star Futures Game and catapulted himself into the upper echelon of minor-league pitching prospects.
Only Rutschman has autograph handlers and daily media availability, but joining Delmarva, he’s starting to catch up with the impressive pitching prospects who are making this year more exciting on the Orioles’ farm.
“The fact that we’ve got guys who are doing well here, guys who are progressing, is huge for the program as a whole,” Rutschman said. “I couldn’t be happier for their successes and hopefully, my ability to help them out and do whatever they need in order for them to continue to progress.”
Means on family emergency list
Left-hander John Means earned the win Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, but was placed on the family medical emergency list Sunday morning, with right-hander Tayler Scott replacing him on the 25-man roster.
Players on the family medical emergency list can remain on it for three to seven days, and manager Brandon Hyde said the team would see Means when it travels to his native Kansas City beginning Friday. Hyde said he might be able to stay on turn in the rotation, but the team would do what’s best for him.
“It’s a private matter for him and his family, and we’re hoping to see him in Kansas City,” Hyde said.